Iraq: A Stalemate In Search Of A Solution

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October 7, 2015: The Russian intervention in Syria has caused Iraq to openly accuse the United States of being ineffective and unwilling to do what it takes to defeat ISIL (al Qaeda in Iraq and the Levant). Iraqi leaders pointed out that over a year ago the U.S. and its Arab allies promised sufficient air support and other military assistance to defeat ISIL. That has not worked. Iraq believes the United States lacks the will to get the job done while Iran and Russia do have what it takes. Iraq also announced that it had established an intelligence sharing arrangement with Iran, Syria and Russia and invited the United States to join. Finally Iraq was considering asking Russia to extend its bombing campaign to attacks on ISIL in western Iraq and Mosul. This would involve allowing Russia to operate from Iraqi air bases. What is meant here but not being said is that Iraq disagrees with the American ROE (Rules of Engagement) which puts more emphasis on protecting civilians than in destroying the enemy. ISIL uses lots of human shields to protect its men and facilities from air attack. Russia and Arab air forces will bomb a target even if there are human shields present. Another unspoken issue here is the high level of corruption in Iraq. The Russians, Iranians and other Arab states tolerate that while the West, and especially the Americans, do not. The Western experience is that, in the long term killing your own people and tolerating corruption is not a good thing. Thus it is a cultural thing, with the leaders of Iraq, Iran, Russia and most other Arab states more concerned with the short term and thus more tolerant of what the West sees as self-destructive behavior.

Another unspoken issue here is the very real and very dangerous religious war that is driving a lot of the violence, especially on the part of ISIL. Westerners, and non-Moslems in general, are generally unfamiliar with this growing religious showdown between Arab led Sunni Moslems and Iran led Shia Moslems. These two factions have been arguing, and often fighting over their theological differences for over a thousand years. During that time most Moslem rulers felt it was best to play down these religious differences. But in the last half century the struggle, fueled by all that unexpected oil wealth in Moslem nations, has allowed the Sunni-Shia conflict to heat up.

On the Sunni side we have oil money funding Islamic conservatives (the predominant kind of Moslem in Arabia) and giving rise to Islamic terrorist groups like al Qaeda and ISIL. None of the Sunni Arab governments wants these groups, although some have used them, as much as they could, against their enemies. But with ISIL this movement has spiraled completely out of control. ISIL espouses an “end of days” doctrine (every religion has one) in which the faithful must mobilize and convert the entire world to Islam so that ultimate purpose of Islam (world domination) can be achieved. The Shia have their own (less devastating) version with Shia in charge. The Sunni have the edge in numbers, as over 80 percent of Moslems are Sunni. But in the Middle East the Shia have an advantage as this is where most Shia live and the Shia are led by Iran. That’s important because for thousands of years the more enterprising and inventive Iranians have been the regional superpower. The Arabs know that, the Iranians know that and some other former superpowers in the area (like Russia and Turkey) know that as well. Everyone should not forget that.

Meanwhile Turkey continues to battle rebellious PKK Kurds in southeast Turkey and northern Iraq. The Kurdish government in northern Iraqi tolerates the Turkish air raids on PKK camps in remote areas and publicly denounces the PKK (although many Iraqi Kurds support the PKK goal of a Kurdish state formed from Kurdish populated parts of Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria).

While Shia and Sunni leaders agree on the need to destroy ISIL the Shia also want to displace the Arab Sunni al Saud family as the guardians of the most holy Moslem shrines (Mecca and Medina in southwestern Saudi Arabia). Moslems have always been obliged to try and make a pilgrimage to Mecca once in their lives and this has made these two towns a gold mine for whoever controls them (as the “guardians of the shrines” of course, not as collector of taxes). At the moment the Saud family is vulnerable, not just for tolerating the Islamic conservatives who gave birth to al Qaeda and ISIL but also for not keeping pilgrims to the shrines safe. There was another accident during the annual pilgrimage (which can only be carried out a few days a year) when poor crowd control led to a panic and over 1,100 people died in the crush. One reason for catastrophes like this is that all that oil wealth made it possible for a lot more people to go to Mecca and for the Saudis to expand the facilities to accommodate them. But the Saudis made mistakes and thousands of pilgrims have died in the last few decades as a result. The Shia religious dictatorship in Iran insists that “Persians” (an old name that is still used) can do better and a growing number of Sunni Moslems are agreeing with them. As with the Saudis, the Iranians would tolerate all (well nearly all) the many Moslem sects (of which Sunni and Shia are the largest) at the holy shrines. The largely Sunni Arabs of Arabia fear Iran wants to control their oil as well as the shrines and thus the very expensive Sunni Arab preparations for a war with Iran. This is going on at the same time as the struggle against ISIL and even if ISIL is crushed soon, there will still be the growing threat of war between Sunni and Shia.

Inside Iraq the tensions between Shia (who are the majority in a country that is 80 percent Arab) and Sunni (half of them are non-Arab Kurds) continue. Most Iraqi Sunni Arabs want nothing to do with ISIL but don’t (for good reason) trust the Shia dominated government. The Iraqi Shia (for good reason) don’t trust the Iraqi Sunnis. The problem here is that small percentage of Iraqi Sunnis do support ISIL and that’s enough to make all Iraqi Sunni Arabs unacceptable to Iraqi Shia (almost all of them Arab). It was the active support of most Iraqi Sunni Arabs against Islamic terrorism in 2007, and the presence of American troops that crushed the al Qaeda led Islamic terrorists in 2007. Back then the Iraqi Sunni Arabs trusted the Americans and were willing to try and work with the Shia government. After the Americans left in 2011 the Shia government ignored the American advice to deal fairly with the Sunni Arabs and that enabled Sunni Islamic terrorists to rebuild and mutate into ISIL. Iraqi leaders refuse to take responsibility for this, many of them blaming ISIL on the Americans (who many Moslems believe created the group to attack Islam). The Iraqi leaders also ignored American advice (and Iraqi public opinion) and did little to eliminate the endemic corruption that has long crippled the economy and military. The newly elected Iraqi government at least recognizes the corruption danger but is not making a major dent in it yet.

Because of the corruption the Iraqi security forces, despite energetic efforts by American and NATO trainers and advisors, is still crippled when it comes to defeating ISIL. The offensives to push ISIL out of Mosul and Anbar (western Iraq) are stalled because of this and Iraqi leaders now hope that more ruthless (and effective) Russian air attacks might help. It might, but the major problem is on the ground and the Russians have made it very clear that they will not be sending in ground forces. Nor will the Americans or even the Sunni Arab neighbors. The Sunni (but non-Arab) Turks are also not interested either. Iran, on the other hand is. But the Shia government is, after all, Arab and does not trust the Iranians. That’s because Iran covets the Shia religious shrines in southern Iraq, as well as the nearby oil fields.

So there you have it, a stalemate in search of a solution.

Iraqi troops and nearby civilians admit that too many officers are still corrupt and ineffective. The troops are better trained and equipped because of the American aid but the government has not removed enough of the corrupt officers to make a big difference. In the north the Kurds continue to push south but are hampered by a shortage of troops. The problem is that protecting Kurdish controlled northern Iraq requires a lot of trained and reliable people and takes priority. There is a long border and ISIL is always trying to get in or at least cause casualties among the border guards. One reason for the Kurdish success is that their military leaders look after their troops and don’t expose them to needless danger.

The corruption also increases the economic problems caused by the sharp decline in the price Iraq gets for its oil. Raising taxes has not covered the shortfall and borrowers are reluctant to make loans. Foreign investors are scared away by the corruption and terrorism (by ISIL, Shia militias and large gangs). It has not gone unnoticed that many large scale construction projects, some started as part of the American reconstruction effort and other by the Iraqi government, have fallen apart due to corruption. The thieves always seem to get paid, often at the expense of foreign donors or the firms (especially foreign ones) hired to do the work.

While the government does not act alarmed at the impact of corruption, a growing number of Iraqis are very agitated. Since late July thousands of pro-reform Iraqis have been demonstrating in Baghdad and other cities every Friday to encourage the government to take more action against corruption. The reforms involve eliminating thousands of senior level positions in the government that exist mainly to enable politicians to steal and enforcing existing laws against corruption. The government responded by making some changes that make it more difficult (but not impossible) for corrupt officials to steal and generally muck things up. The people want more of this, and less corruption in general. So far all the government has not done enough and that keeps the demonstrators coming. The people demand more action and these demonstrations may be the start of a sustained anti-corruption movement. What makes these demonstrations so effective is that they have the support of the two top Shia clerics; Grand Ayatollah Sistani and the younger, more radical and pro-Iran Ayatollah Sadr. This clerical support makes the demonstrations impossible to ignore but so many top officials are corrupt that it is difficult to get enough of them removed to persuaded to act with more integrity to make a difference. Corruption has been endemic to this region for thousands of years, but now there is democracy and widespread realization that progress is impossible with the current levels of corruption. 

Intelligence and police agencies in the West have been noticing a pattern in the movements of Islamic terrorists from the West who are veterans of ISIL operations in the “caliphate” (Iraq/Syria and a few branch locations in places like Pakistan, Libya, Somalia and Nigeria). Compared to al Qaeda, ISIL is sending far fewer trained, motivated and prepared Islamic terrorists back to the West to organize and carry out major attacks. Instead ISIL tries to encourage Western fans of ISIL to do whatever they can where they are. This has led to a lot of embarrassing failures and a few successful but small scale acts of violence in the West, usually by individuals acting alone via the ISIL suggestion. This makes ISIL more dangerous where it began because that is supposed to be the beginning of worldwide conquest.

October 6, 2015: Russia announced that it would be willing to expand their air attacks to Iraq if Iraq made an official request.

October 4, 2015: In Anbar tribal leaders that ISIL had publicly executed 70 tribesmen in an effort discourage locals from joining the security forces or anti-ISIL militias.

October 3, 2015: The U.S. denied Iraqi accusations that the United States had ceased operations in Anbar (including air strikes, troops training and the presence of advisors). This claim got started by some Iraqi government officials seeking an acceptable (to themselves and the public) reason for the lack of progress against ISIL in Anbar during the last month. In fact there has been some progress in Anbar but usually by the few units led by competent and much less corrupt officers. Iraqi officials don’t like to dwell on this aspect of the military situation in Anbar while the Americans do. The government also does not like to address the growing media reports of Iraqi civilians in Anbar and Mosul feeling that their government has abandoned them.

October 2, 2015: The fighting, mostly against ISIL, left 717 Iraqis (security forces and civilians) dead in September. This is about half what it was in August, largely because military operations against ISIL are stalled. On the plus side ISIL activity seems to be stalled as well, in part because ISIL is now more intent on dealing with the new Russian threat in Syria.

The decrease in terrorist related deaths is welcome in Iraq, although the government does not like to go into the reasons for the decrease. In August 1,325 Iraqis died, which was almost identical to the 1,332 Iraqis killed in July. That was down slightly from June (1,466) but still higher than 1,100 dead in May. The increase since May is largely because the government began its promised June offensive a little late but still in June. Fighting increased around Mosul and in Anbar and deaths among the security forces (including pro-government militias) more than doubled (from 366 in May to 700-800 a month in June, July and August). Since January (when nearly 1,400 died) monthly terrorist related deaths were usually 1,100-1,200 a month. This is because most of the ISIL violence was of the terrorist, not military, variety. Until June about half the victims were civilians.

The death toll for all of 2014 was about 15,600. That’s a big jump from 2013 when the death toll was 8,900 for all of Iraq and only ten percent of those were terrorists while the majority were Shia civilians. Previously the worst year was 2007, when nearly 18,000 died. Then as now the main cause of the mayhem and murder was Sunni fanatics who want to run the country as a Sunni dictatorship. Still Iraq was a lot less violent than neighboring Syria where the death toll was 76,000 in 2014. That’s over 91,000 dead during 2014 for the two countries where ISIL is most active. The death toll in Syria has risen more sharply than in Iraq. Some Iraqi officials still believe that ISIL will be crushed in Iraq by the end of 2016. It’s happened before (like in 2007-8), but then the Sunni fanatics eventually made yet another comeback. The big campaign now is against ISIL, which took Mosul in mid-2014. All this ISIL violence has forced over three million Iraqis from their homes.  American military advisors are less optimistic mainly because the Iraqi army and police still have so many incompetent (and often corrupt) officers. Fixing that situation takes time and there is no way to speed it up dramatically. Iraqi and Western politicians and media pundits have a hard time understanding that reality. ISIL losses are believed to be higher than those for the security forces but there is no precise data available or if there is it is kept secret to prevent ISIL from finding out how it was obtained.

September 28, 2015: In Mosul ISIL has banned outdoor meeting by more than three people. There is growing active (at least one sniper) and passive (massive) resistance to ISIL rule in the city. ISIL has also been arresting people for using their cell phones. This is how uncensored information gets in and out of the city. Over a hundred people have been picked up by ISIL when caught using cell phones and some of those people have disappeared.  

The remaining Turkish construction workers and their Iraqi (Kurdish) translator kidnapped by a Shia militia on the 2nd were released. The kidnappers demanded that Turkey stop the flow of ISIL recruits into Iraq, halt the flow of Kurdish oil via Turkey and do something to end the ISIL siege of several Shia villages in Syria (near the Turkish border) in exchange for the hostages. On the 11th the kidnappers released a video of the prisoners pleading for help from their government. On the 16th two of the 16 Turks were released in Basra, near the Kuwait border. The Iraqi government negotiated to get the rest of the Turks released. The two major Shia clerics in Iraq condemned the kidnapping and apparently helped the government make contact with the previously unknown Shia group responsible. There are many radical Shia Iraqis who are hostile to Sunnis (for all the al Qaeda and ISIL violence against Shia) and Kurds (for not being Arab and for not obeying the Shia government). All this pressure apparently worked and now Iraq does not have all that unwelcome diplomatic pressure from Turkey to distract them.  

September 25, 2015: In the Kurdish north oil exports (via a pipeline to Turkey) resumed. PKK has been attacking the pipeline inside Turkey repeatedly and that has cut Kurdish oil exports (and revenue) about 20 percent. The Kurds use this money to run their autonomous government and pay for their military operations against ISIL. The Arab dominated Iraqi government is reluctant to send the Kurds cash or military aid.

 

 

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